Chapter 4: Sam Crosses The Atlantic
I awoke one morning and found myself famous.
---Lord Byron, after the publication of "Childe Harold"
Based on a best-selling Jeffrey Archer novel, Kane and Abel, this 1985 American mini-series tells the story of a life-long rivalry between a Polish immigrant-turned-millionaire, Abel Rosnovski (Peter Strauss) and Boston banker William Lowell Kane (Sam Neill). In this mini-series, Sam's uncanny ability to "become" another person is highlighted. He was able to reproduce the Bostonian accent expected from Kane perfectly.
Sam had avoided Hollywood until the offer of Kane and Abel. He was not overly fond of the 'disposable culture' of America, as well as the overbearing attitude of the film industry toward its actors:
I resist Los Angeles to a certain extent. It's not a place I particularly care to be. There's not an awfully lot of films made in Hollywood that I find particularly appealing. I received plenty of offers of work from all over the place. However, I could still walk down the street without being rugby-tackled or have helicopters buzzing--problems my peers have to put up with. I'd like to be a successful actor in America, but I have no desire to be a celebrity. I don't think that people from this part of the world (Australia and New Zealand) are very good at being well-known. I don't think we're very comfortable with it; I'm not very comfortable with it. I don't particularly like being recognised. At the same time, it's good when people know you.
Sam laughs at the apparent contradiction. 'I don't know. I've got mixed feelings about it.'
However, Sam could not turn down the chance to play William Kane, starring opposite Peter Strauss' Abel. He describes his character:
Kane is a moral man, probably not as attractive to women as some of the cads I've played, such as Reilly. I'm not an apologist for snobbishness or the class system, but I think some of the values these people adhered to have a lot to recommend themselves. They led spotless lives. Kane isn't ruthless. He just does what he sees as right. Part of me sees life in a very similar way to Kane. I don't believe in inherited wealth or dynastic families, but there is a part of me that's puritan.
A friend of Sam's agrees with his last comment, saying that Sam does indeed have a Puritan side in that "he believes in stretching one's potential, in hard work, in family, in keeping one's house in order. He isn't frivolous. What I always come back to is his decency; he is a very worthwhile human being."
Sam's heritage is not dissimilar to Kane's, as he points out:
"Kane isn't too far removed from my experience. My family were merchants. I was supposed to be one of them, but it all went terribly wrong and I became an actor."
After Kane and Abel, Sam returned to England to film Strong Medicine, a four-hour mini-series. Based on a best seller by Arthur Hailey, Strong Medicine is set in Boston, but was filmed in the London suburbs of Ruislip and Wembley as well as England's Lake District. It is about the cut-throat world of the pharmaceutical industry, and co-stars Pamela Sue Martin and Patrick Duffy. Sam's character is Vincent Lord, a villain of villains, capable of anything and everything to claw his way to the top of the drug-industry heap. One of Sam's favourite actors at the time, Dick Van Dyke, also co-starred in Strong Medicine, playing the president of the pharmaceutical company. Sam said that he felt he would 'never get over the fact that Van Dyke shook his hand at their first meeting and told him how much he'd enjoyed his performance in Kane and Abel.' As for his attitude toward the mini-series, during filming Sam said, 'It ain't gonna be art, but it's gonna be entertaining.' He went on to say that
It's one of those jobs where after a take I went away giggling because I've just been enjoying it. You know you're not shooting King Lear so you can afford to relax and just enjoy acting. And the only point in acting is to have fun, really.
In 1987 Sam continued working in television by portraying a Communist leader in the highly controversial American mini-series Amerika. It was in Amerika that Sam did what he felt, at that time, to be some of his best work, as it dealt strongly with the contrasts and conflicting natures of humans:
I don't believe anyone is entirely good or bad. I think even the best of us are capable of evil and even the worst of us are capable of doing good things. Human beings are flawed.
Sam does not pretend that Amerika is one of the best mini-series or films that he has worked in, but he does believe that the character he portrayed is one of the most interesting.
I played a KGB colonel, very smart, who loves power and loves manipulating power. I hate that sort of thing. He's a very complex man, and sees, for instance, that in some circumstances, in order to achieve a wider good, you have to do things that are bad in the short run. I actually don't think that's defensible at all. He's totally committed to the Soviet system, but on the other hand, is obsessively attracted to things that are Western and decadent.
After completing Amerika in 1987, Sam returned to Australia to film The Umbrella Woman, released in America under the title The Good Wife. Sam had fun with this film, in part because he was able to work with one of his best friends, Bryan Brown, and also with Rachel Ward. Sam stated that he very much admires Bryan Brown:
He just manages his life so well. He's certain of what he wants and where he wants to go. And so focused. I've never traditionally had a very well-managed life.
In The Umbrella Woman, Sam plays one of his most famous caddish characters, Neville Gifford. Gifford is a man who is brought in to run the pub in a small outback motel. Sam describes his character:
In The Umbrella Woman, the first time you see this character, he gets off the train and he sort of oozes up to Rachel Ward. I'm not getting off the train thinking "I'm gonna be sexy", I'm getting off the train thinking "this is just disgusting what this guy intends to do."
One term of description for the character of Neville Gifford is a 'cad'. Without a doubt he is quite without morals or ethics, yet women find him completely enticing and alluring. When asked why he thought that women found such miscreants irresistible, Sam answered:
I had to do quite a bit of research on this. I'm not a cad; that goes without saying. I don't even know any cads. So I've had to talk to a lot of women who've come across these sort of people. And it seems to me it's very simple. The secret to success is very easy: you just have to be nice to women. You just have to say nice things to them. This is what cads do. They say things like "you've got fantastic legs". And it always works, every time. I think it's got to do with Australian men, particularly Australian husbands--this is what women have told me--that it's hard enough to get Australian men to be nice about your roast chicken, let alone say anything nice about your legs.
This is not to say that simply because a man compliments a woman he is a scoundrel, however. Sam elaborates:
Cads always come across as gentlemen and then you realise that there's something very unpleasant underneath. People ask me to play cads and villains quite a bit -- I'm never entirely sure why -- but would say that this [Neville Gifford] is probably the most caddish role I've played.
Sam's characters certainly come across as men who easily compliment the ladies--the smooth, suave, dashing sort. He often appears to play these roles entirely too convincingly. So, is he a "cad" in real life as well? Sam answers:
I like to play away from myself. The more villainous, or caddish, whatever, I think it's easier. The hardest thing to do is to play something close to yourself. It's like Laurence Olivier who puts on noses, ears, wigs and things--the more things you can stick on to yourself as an actor, the more props you can use, the easier it is to produce a character. The hardest thing is to play something close to yourself, because then you're not playing a character; you're just playing.
Sam, however, does not consider the character of Gifford to be one dimensional, but instead believes that Gifford has some redeeming values:
He's not simply a sleazebag. I believe every character like this has his reasons. I mean, I've seen this as being partly a tragic character, someone who has an absolutely insatiable appetite for women, but never gets close to anybody, never has any kind of emotional life at all. I think there's something rather sad about that. So, I think he's kind of amusing. At least he has an appetite for life. He loves being alive. He loves women...in a way. Yet, there's something about womanisers that they're destructive. They want to destroy the people they love.
When asked in an interview promoting The Umbrella Woman if he likes women, Sam appeared to be at a loss. Obviously uncomfortable, he fidgeted in his seat, the heat from his sudden blush almost palpable. His entire face glowed with his grin as he stammered, 'I...yes, I do.' Composing himself a bit, he continued, 'I think that women are by and large more likeable than men.'
The Umbrella Woman was the first film in which Sam appeared in a moustache. He explains his reasons why:
I did a bit of research into the period and obviously the man would want to look like Clark Gable, but I knew that a Clark Gable moustache on me would look extremely sleazy, and indeed it does.
Not only was the moustache Sam's idea, but so were the rings which Gifford wore:
I remember I had a teacher at school, who was a bit of a Neville, and he had all these rings. The rings are based on him. He had these big, green, square ones, and gold signet rings. I got one and had engraved on it "N. G." for Neville Gifford, and also for "no good". Just putting the rings on in the morning, you'd feel no good.
Sam explains his reasons for wanting to be Neville Gifford in The Umbrella Woman:
This is a film that people were trying to make for about four years and there's just something about the story that I find very appealing. I'm not sure what it is -- there's a certain tragic element in it and also there's something to do with an exploration of obsession and sexuality in an Australian context which strikes me as being very different from a lot of things that are done here [in America]. It's certainly a film done from a woman's point of view, but I don't think it's a film exclusively for women. I think all women in a way have met a Neville. I mean, it's not just women; all of us love the thing that we can't have -- the thing that's elusive.
Sam also admitted that he 'would have done it (the film) for free', because 'Rachel was just wonderful to play with. I mean, how often do you get a chance to put your hand up Rachel Ward's skirt?' Sam elaborated on his co-star:
I think Rachel is a marvellous actress, and I think this is the first film, really, that she's been allowed to really show what she can do. I think she's fantastic.
Two years following this interview, Sam was once again on the same talk show, and he learned that his co-stars from The Umbrella Woman, married couple Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown, had also been on the show, in a follow-up appearance to his own. Sam was shown a video containing part of Brown and Ward's interview, in which Bryan had been shown a clip of Sam's opinion regarding Rachel Ward -- the one in which he had mentioned having his 'hand up (her) skirt'. Bryan's reaction to this comment of Sam's was, naturally enough, one of indignation, and he proceeded to proclaim Sam a 'dirty bugger'.
After watching his friend's reaction to his comments, Sam was naturally embarrassed, but not for the reasons that one would normally assume. Evidently he had been busy observing the clothing that he had worn during his interview two year's previous, because Sam's only comment on the incident was an embarrassed, 'two years later, I'm still wearing the same tie.' He reflected for a moment and then added, 'And Bryan's still saying the same things about me.'
Sam redeemed himself from his role as a rogue in The Umbrella Woman by playing supportive, compassionate husbands in his next three films: Dead Calm, A Leap of Faith, and Evil Angels.
Dead Calm is based on a 1963 novel by Charles Williams. Orson Welles had began a film version of the novel, but the project was suspended in 1970 and then abandoned altogether in 1973, due to the death of Laurence Harvey, who was to be the leading man. Director Phillip Noyce and producers Terry Hayes, Doug Mitchell and George Miller gave the novel another chance at life as a film in 1988.
Starring Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane, Dead Calm is a true-blue thriller. The action takes place aboard two yachts off the coast of Australia, and the three characters remain surrounded throughout the entire film by miles and miles of ocean. Cut off from civilisation, the plot centres on sharp psychological mind games between the married couple, John and Rae Ingram (Sam and Kidman), and the madman, Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane).
The madman is not what worried Sam during filming, however. It seems that Sam suffers somewhat from claustrophobia as well as sea-sickness. These are two ailments which an actor could certainly do without when he is portraying a man trapped on a sinking yacht as the water rises up above his ears:
My idea of a way to waste a Sunday is to go out on somebody's yacht. I don't like them at all. We were filming actually at sea; we didn't have any way to cheat these scenes. So, we have a certain amount of scenes which are actually in storm conditions and we just had to wait until we got the right weather. They were very uncomfortable. I didn't enjoy them -- at all. I was very often seasick.
The fact that the film had many shots of tightly enclosed areas, several of which were underwater, gave Sam the opportunity to discover new aspects of his personality. He elaborates:
I found that I'm slightly prone to claustrophobia; I think most people are -- but those scenes where the water's rising and rising and it looks like my chips are up, well, they were pretty uncomfortable. The water was cold as hell. Physically, I think this was the toughest film I've ever done.
The physical conditions of the film may have been less than ideal, but there were no complaints about his co-stars on Dead Calm:
Nicole Kidman was fantastic in the film. She's a great girl and I'm very fond of her. She's bright and beautiful, talented, and all the things you need to be a film star. I think she's got a great future in front of her. She's a sexy broad, you know?
Well, perhaps there is one co-star that Sam was less than enamoured of: Benjy, the dog. This relationship appeared to be one of a love/hate category:
We were very fond of Benjy. He's such a cute dog, but you wanted to throttle him after a few days. He's a clever dog. I mean, he did everything he was required to do. I didn't have many scenes with him, thank God, because you know the old movie adage: never act with children or dogs. Nicole had most of the stuff with Benjy.
Dead Calm is most memorable for Sam because it was on the set of this film that he met Noriko Watanabe, a make-up artist who was also working on the film. ('She is very busy,' Sam comments, 'one of the top people in her field. I do not see enough of her.') Sam recounts his initial reaction to Noriko: 'When I fell in love, I had the usual symptoms: insomnia, light fever, loss of appetite. It was like the flu, except the symptoms intensified in the presence of the intended.'
'Love', Sam adds, 'is an extremely volatile element. The explosion can blind and cripple you, or it can be an absolutely marvellous injury. There ain't nothing like it.' Sam describes his pursuit of Noriko as one of simple perseverance. Evidently she knew actors far too well to consider dating one. Nonetheless, the typical Neill tenacity paid off and Noriko eventually gave in, agreeing to a date. Subsequent encounters proceeded smoothly, and in October, 1989 Sam took time from filming The Hunt for Red October to fly to Sydney, Australia. The purpose of his journey was twofold: receiving the Best Actor award at the Australian Film Institute Awards for his portrayal of Michael Chamberlain and marrying Noriko.
After completing Dead Calm, Sam returned to North America to star in the 1988 made-for-television production A Leap of Faith. Released on video as A Question of Faith, this work tells the true story of Debby Franke Ogg, played by Anne Archer. Ogg had been diagnosed with lymphoma, a type of cancer which her doctors had termed incurable. Rather than give in, her husband Oscar (Sam) seeks out several alternative remedies which Debby faithfully tries, and after two years her cancer is subdued into remission.
Anne Archer comments on Sam's personality:
He likes to pull little, gentle jokes, but nothing that would hurt anybody. Sam is very huggable. There's a quiet gentleness about him. He displays all the characteristics of someone who lives in a simpler world.
When Sam was asked about his opinion on the subject matter of Leap of Faith, he replied:
I personally feel that [alternative medicine] can be productive and useful, but I also happen to believe in the efficacy of conventional medicine, and by and large I think the two are best employed in tandem.
From a movie on the subject of natural healing, Sam went to Australia to film what may be termed that country's most controversial film ever: Evil Angels. Based on a novel by John Bryson, Evil Angels was released in the United States and Britain as A Cry in the Dark. This film gave Sam the chance to work with Meryl Streep and Fred Schepsi once again, his last film with the two being Plenty in 1985.
Evil Angels tells the true story of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, played by Meryl Streep and Sam Neill. In 1980, the Chamberlains were on a camping trip, visiting Australia's famous Ayer's Rock, when their baby daughter, Azaria, was taken by a dingo. What followed was worse than the worst nightmare: gossip grew to a frenzied pitch, resulting in Lindy being accused, then convicted, of murdering her daughter. She spent three years in prison before being released on an appeal.
Sam wanted to work on Evil Angels for several reasons, one of which was the chance to again act opposite Meryl Streep:
I think she is extraordinary in this film. People talk about her Australian accent being superb and of course it is flawless, but that's just the surface. It was the substance beneath the accent and her grasp of the character that I found astonishing. She is a great actress. There's no doubt about it. I certainly learn from her. Just being on the set with her is a constant reminder that one always has to concentrate, to be inventive and creative.
Meryl Streep has nice words to say about Sam, as well:
The time we had together on-screen was so intense that I was grateful it was someone as witty and droll as Sam that I was spending time with in the off-screen moments, to relieve the tension. He has a great barking laugh that you won't hear in this film, but that I hear all over again whenever I think about him.
Sam believed the Chamberlains to be innocent, and that was the second reason for wishing to be a part of this film:
I believe completely in their innocence. I think of Michael as being a friend of mine and I think the media has a lot to answer for in this case. I feel a kind of responsibility toward Michael. I feel I have to do him some kind of justice. Here you have someone who has done everything right and then God, or whoever it is that runs things, served a number of events and situations for which he (Michael Chamberlain) wasn't in any way prepared. Initially his faith insulated him from reality, and this is the man that was brought face to face with reality in no uncertain terms. I think he's a better man for it in a lot of ways.
For their initial encounter, Sam was to be met at the train station by Michael, so that they might spend a few days together in laying the groundwork for the role that Sam was to play. Unlike his preparation for the role of Oscar Ogg, Sam did do considerable research for the role of Michael Chamberlain. However, Michael was not at the train station, as had been planned:
Five minutes later, Michael walked out of the doorway and came walking towards me. It was then that I realised that actually I was the one under observation. Somehow the tables had been turned here -- the observer was being observed.
Sam considered the fact that he was portraying a real person, who was still very much alive, the most difficult part of acting in the film. Due to the large amounts of news footage and taped interviews, Australia was intimately familiar with Michael's tone, personality, and mannerisms. During the media blitz, Michael had become well-known as an ordinary, plain man who was also brimming with religious zeal. The fact that his life-style was so different to mainstream Australia made it difficult for Michael to relate comfortably with the media, and this in turn made it an extremely difficult part for Sam to portray. Nonetheless, Sam was fully believable as Michael Chamberlain. Those who know both Sam and Michael were amazed at the similarity between the real Michael and Sam's portrayal of him in the film. He was able to capture Michael's loyalty and vulnerability and expose it to the audience in a completely convincing manner.
Sam worked closely with both Lindy and Michael throughout the film, and once it was finished, Michael phoned Sam in America:
Michael was in tears at that stage and finding it difficult to articulate, but Lindy, who is pretty amused and amusing about a lot of things, felt I was more Michael than Michael himself.
The fact that Michael is so ordinary a man was difficult for Sam as well, since he could not rely on 'props' to fill out the role. 'It's not a flashy part,' he explains. 'I'll be surprised if anyone notices me. I'm not exactly playing Spartacus in this film. Michael's not Ben-Hur.' However, Michael does have a wider range of emotions than Lindy, who was known for her stoicism throughout the trial, a fact that greatly contributed to her being initially convicted of the crime. 'I suppose Michael in many ways is a lot more vulnerable than Lindy', Sam admits. 'You see him exposed in a way that you don't really see her very often.' Sam continues elaborating on his character's emotional nakedness and vulnerability:
Simply having to tap those emotional resources in myself, a thing I'm not very often asked to do as I usually play people that are sort of covered and cool, and there are times in this film where I had to explore a sort of raw emotional area that I'd never really been to before. There are scenes in this film that you look through the script and you think "God, how'm I gonna do this? This is so confronting." I was scared about it. In a way I think that sort of helped, that I'd go on the set very frightened. I'd take a deep breath and go into it, and you wouldn't know what would happen, where you'd be at the end of the scene. You'd end up at a different place than you'd expected to be. That was an exciting, new thing for me. It was a departure.
The fact that the Chamberlains had lost a child, in reality, caused Sam to contemplate his own life, and that of his son, Tim:
The things that these people went through -- losing one's child -- if you have a child of your own you know that this is your worst nightmare. I suppose what caught the popular imagination about this story had to do with a choice of two horrors here, and it's to do with the loss of a child. One is: a dingo takes a child, so you have a horror that lurks beyond the light of the campfire, the beast in the dark. Or, the mother kills the child -- if this is what the courts say, or the papers say the people say -- you live in a world which is doubly horrifying. You live in a world where, if a mother can kill a child any horror is possible. That sacred bond between mother and child has been severed.
This potential horror emanating from the film affected not only audiences world-wide, but also the cast and crew of Evil Angels. Sam describes what took place after filming a particularly emotional scene:
We were in tears on that particular occasion. There's something about the situation that someone, after a year, can finally, actually, talk about what had happened. And say her (Azaria's) name. That tapped something in me at the time.
This film brought out another facet of Australia. America, England and the rest of the world had been treated to pictures of 'Crocodile Dundee' and 'Young Einstein', which were bright and cheerful at best, benign at worst. Now the world was shown a darker side of Australia, one of prejudice and bigotry. Rather than being completely negative, Sam sees this new presentation of Australia in a different light:
At last, after quite some time, there's a really strong, gutsy film from Australia. Of course, this is the flip side of the fantasy of 'Crocodile Dundee'. We're talking realism here. Myself, I don't think this is an anti-Australian film. I think that's nonsense. I think that it is the mark of a mature society, indeed of a mature film industry, when you can produce work that does take a good clear-eyed look at ourselves, you know? There's nothing wrong with self-criticism; I think it's healthy.
Other people were critical of Evil Angels, due to a tenaciously held belief in the guilt of Lindy Chamberlain or due to the fact that they were 'sick of the Chamberlains' and felt that they were little more than 'publicity hunters'. Sam responds, in a tone rather more sharp than is usual for him:
Well, I'm not sick of the Chamberlains. Actually, a lot of the response that I've received has been people ringing me up and saying "I'm so surprised by this film. It really moved me in a way I didn't expect."
A close friend of Sam's commented that he feels Sam's portrayal of Michael Chamberlain was the best work he has ever done, because the character is so dissimilar to Sam's own personality. 'When I saw the film, I realised that he actually could act,' he said. Sam's choosing such a character is not surprising, as it has been Sam's policy to accept parts that would extend his range, and is therefore always on the lookout for something different.
In pursuit of diversity, Sam ended the decade of the eighties with what promised to be a wonderful film, La Revolution Francaise. This film is a $50 million epic about the French Revolution. Filmed in Paris, Sam starred with Peter Ustinov and Jane Seymour: 'I played Lafayette and spent a lot of time riding around on a white horse.' La Revolution Francaise turned out to not be the blockbuster that the French movie industry had expected, however, and seems to have quietly retired into the vaults. But, looking on the bright side, Sam notes that 'it was fun for the simple reason that one was working for 10 weeks or so in Paris.'
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